Ultradian Rhythm: What It Is & How to Use It to Optimize Your Performance

How do you typically operate during a working day? Do you start on a task and then power your way through it from start to finish – no matter how much you struggle?

Or do you work for a certain length of time and then take a break, returning to the task at hand when you’re feeling more refreshed? If you choose to do the latter, you might find that you are more effective, more focused, and capable of completing the task at hand. What you probably aren’t aware of though, is that the reason for this comes down to ultradian rhythms.

Understanding Your Chronobiology and Biological Rhythms

Women Deals with Stresses from Work

In our modern world, we’ve become disconnected from the rhythm of life. We forget that our lives are shaped by light and darkness, lunar cycles, and seasonal cycles… and they have been since the beginning of mankind.

Deep within us are genetically driven timers that control our body’s biological rhythms. These rhythms underscore our days and lives, in both small and seemingly insignificant ways, as well as in large and noticeable ways. This field of study is called chronobiology, and there are three main types of rhythms identified:

  1. Circadian Rhythms – completing a cycle in an approximately 24-hour span of time, circadian rhythms include the sleep/wake cycle, the body temperature cycle, appetite, etc.
  2. Infradian Rhythms – lasting more than 24 hours, but repeated only every few days, or weeks, or months, or even just once per year. Infradian rhythms include the female menstrual cycle, seasonal affective disorder (caused by lack of light during the winter months), and other hormonal or seasonal changes.
  3. Ultradian Rhythms – having a duration shorter than a day, but longer than an hour, ultradian rhythms include the 90-120 minute cycling of sleep stages during human sleep, hormonal secretions, heart rate, digestion, and so on.

In this article, you’re going to discover how understanding your own personal ultradian rhythms can help you use them to your advantage – especially at work.

Your Body Craves a Rest Every 80-90 Minutes

stressed out man sitting at desk at work

It starts with understanding that the conventional workday (e.g., 9 to 5) was not designed with optimal productivity in mind, nor the activity of ultradian rhythms. It was simply designed to keep employees at work for a certain period of time, under the misguided assumption they would be productive the entire time.

As we all know, that just doesn’t happen. But if you are better able to understand your body’s natural rhythms a little better then you can optimize your performance, no matter the task at hand.

Ultradian rhythms help to explain how our energy, focus, and attention ebbs and flows throughout the day. For instance, it has been found that hormonal levels, heart rate, brain-wave activity and even muscle tension all increase during the first part of the ultradian cycle, along with alertness and mental focus.

After an hour or so, however, each of these begins to decline. At about the 80-90 minute mark, the brain and body begin to crave a rest period.

The Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC)

Woman Sleeps Easily

Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky were pioneers in the field of sleep research. They were responsible for the discovery in 1953 of the various stages of sleep, now known as REM and non-REM sleep.

For example, during sleep, on average our brains go through a 90-minute cycle of rest known as non-REM sleep. This is followed by around 20 minutes of activity, known as REM sleep.

The pair later discovered that the brain also cycles through periods of activity and rest when awake. Calling it the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (or BRAC), they found that our brains cycle through alternating periods of activity and rest, with each cycle lasting approximately 80 to 120 minutes, depending on the individual.

In contrast to the sleep cycle, during BRAC our brains appear to go through around 90 minutes of intense activity and focus, followed by 20 minutes of rest, and this cycle occurs repeatedly throughout the day [1, 2].

Why Ultradian Rhythm Productivity Is Better Than “Powering Through”

When we ignore these rhythms and force ourselves to power through a project until it’s completed (or time to go home), problems arise.

If you have ever been working on a project for a protracted period of time, and then felt overcome by weariness, lethargy, or mental fading, this is exactly why. Our brains actually need to take breaks after an intense period of activity to be optimally focused and perform at a higher level.

business woman sitting on floor with eyes closed taking a break

During this 20-minute break, if done properly, a lot is happening in the mind and body, and it’s similar to what occurs during sleep. Initially, it might feel as though taking a 20-minute break will be a waste of your precious time, but it really isn’t. Quite the opposite. The break is essential for recharging your batteries so that you can operate at peak levels of performance.

According to Ernest Rossi, PhD, psychologist, researcher, and author of several books on mind-body healing, the mind and body are busy resynchronizing during this break in activity.

Free radicals and oxidative waste products that have been building up in the tissues during the previous period of high brain activity are cleared out of the cells. Neurotransmitters required for good mind-body communication are replenished, and cellular energy is being restored [3]. As you can see, your brain and body will benefit greatly from taking rest breaks.

4 Steps for Making Your Ultradian Rhythm Work for You

The goal is to make the most of an intense period of brain activity by actually taking that rest period afterward and making it work optimally for you. Here are 5 tips on how to accomplish that:

Man standing, using a desk.

#1. Determine the Length of Your Own Personal Basic Rest-Activity Cycle.

By understanding your own activity-rest cycle, you can learn how to put ultradian rhythms to good use. Get yourself a timer or use the timer on your phone. Set it for 45 minutes and get to work. Pay close attention to how you feel during this 45-minute period. Are you able to work the full 45 minutes and be focused on the task at hand? Or does your attention begin to wander after only 30 minutes?

Write down the length of time you were able to stay on task, how you felt while working, and how you felt afterward. In this step, you are just getting a handle on your particular pattern.

#2. Start Where You Are.

If you found that you were only able to achieve 30 minutes of focused attention, start with that. Work for 30 minutes and then take a five-minute rest break.

During these five minutes, you are not checking your phone or email or making phone calls. You are simply sitting in your chair with your eyes closed, or taking a short walk around your office, or lying on the floor of your office if you are able to do so without exciting comment. Some people may need to go and hide in the restroom to get a break without anyone noticing or commenting.

gratitude journal

#3. Keep Notes on How You Feel.

It’s vital to take notes about how you are feeling during and after your session of activity/work, as well as how you felt before and after the rest break.

Were you able to make it the full 90 minutes or did you run out of brainpower 20 minutes early? Was the rest period sufficient, or did you feel like you needed more? You might find that you do better during the first half of your day than you do with the second half, while it may be just the opposite for others.

By taking notes, you will be better able to chart your personal patterns. If you felt sharp and focused for 30 minutes, begin there.

#4. Work Up to a Full Cycle of 80-90 Minutes.

Each time you return to your desk to focus on work, time how long you were able to work where your brain is able to focus intently on the task. Work for that period of time, then take a rest break. Next time, increase the work cycle by 5-10 minutes. Work cycles may vary on some days, depending on stress levels and the amount of sleep you got the night before. Always follow the activity period with at least a five-minute rest period.

Slowly, over a period of days or weeks, you should be able to work up to a full 90-minute active work cycle, followed by a full 20 minutes of rest. Also, it’s important to know that you don’t have to take a full 20-minute break if you don’t wish to (or can’t). You should be able to gauge when you feel you’ve had adequate rest. For some, only a 10-minute rest break is required.

Making Your Rest Break the Best it Can Be

First of all, some people will simply not have the opportunity to take a 20-minute break, especially if they are employees. No matter how long the break that you get, however, whether it’s five minutes or 20, do your best to really relax in the time that you have.

Also, if you miss your break altogether, you don’t need to wait another 90 minutes to take a break. Take the break whenever you can and then work for a shorter period next time.

Here are some tips for maximizing your rest break:

Set a timer on your phone for the time period you’ve set aside for this break, whether it be five minutes, or the full 20, then put your phone in airplane mode.

Don’t engage with Facebook, email, or non-urgent text messages.

Try not to sleep; that isn’t the point of this break. However, if you are so tired and really want a nap and can do that, by all means, take that nap, and just return to the BRAC when you are refreshed. There’s a lot to be said for the power nap.

woman walking for exercise

• If you have a job where you sit a lot, feel free to take a short walk somewhere quiet and free from distractions. Allow your mind to drift or daydream, or engage in some positive affirmations.

• If you wish to sit or lay down, find a quiet place (hopefully away from your desk). Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath, taking a few deep breaths, nice and easy. Allow your mind to drift. This is a good time for daydreaming. Try to stay away from stressful or negative thoughts, promise to deal with them another time. Drift and dream, with your eyes shut. Breathe and just be present.

• Just prior to the end of your session, engage in some alternate nostril breathing (find a YouTube video that will teach you). This ancient method of breathing helps to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain, infuses your body and brain with fresh oxygen, wakes up your brain, and gives you loads more energy.

• Remember to take your phone off airplane mode as you return to work if you need to receive incoming messages or alerts.

Unlock Your Productivity & Creativity

The best part about understanding and utilizing ultradian rest and activity cycles is that it helps you optimize your time at work, helps you manage your work better, makes you more productive and resistant to stress, and avoids burnout.

By understanding that the more you try to fight against your body’s ultradian rhythms, the less productive you are likely to be, and the more burned out you may become. Working with these rhythms can unlock productivity and creativity you didn’t know you had. If you are an employee, you might even want to bring this article to your boss’s attention, and see if they would be willing to let you and other employees work this way.

What are your thoughts on taking ultradian rhythm breaks? If you already do this or try it, please share your observations in the comments section below!

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